Siena's Panforte: Showing Fruitcake Who's Boss Since the Middle Ages

Have you ever eaten something and not particularly liked it upon first bite but developed desire to eat it anyway? It’s as if there’s something about it that you know you could learn to love over time. That’s what panforte, a confection from Siena, does to me. Panforte means “strong bread.” The name comes from the blend of warm spices that go into it, like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and coriander. I think its name is also appropriate because it’s so heavy and dense you could probably use it as a mild weapon if necessary.

Something along these lines: “Don’t mess with me now, I’m just back from the pastry shop and I’ve got strong bread in this bag.”

Most people compare panforte to fruitcake. I admit, there are some similarities. They’re both substantial cakes full of nuts and dried/candied fruits. They are both traditionally Christmas cakes, although panforte is now available year-round in Siena, Tuscany, and I’ve even seen some in Umbria.

The glaring difference to me, however, is that fruitcake is almost universally disgusting to me. I’ve had a single bite of one that I didn’t mind but, other than that, I loathe most of them with the fire of a thousand burning suns.

In my strong, but humble opinion, it’s the quality of the ingredients that take panforte out of the realm of fruitcake and into the realm of delicacy. How many times have you seen a fruitcake and it has those neon-green and fire-engine red, toxic-looking “cherries” peering out at you like demented eyes? And green cherries? That’s just unnatural. I do not want them in my mouth. Ever.

Panforte? Recipes differ, of course, and there are two main types. Panforte Nero has bitter almonds and cocoa which give it a deep, dark color. Panforte Margherita is lighter and a little less intensely flavored. They’re both full of good, natural stuff like warm, deep spices, honey, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, figs, dates, and candied fruits like lemon, orange peel, and even melon.

A thick, sticky dough is made by mixing the chopped fruits, nuts, and a bit of flour with a boiled honey and sugar mixture. It is then spread evenly over wax paper in a springform pan and baked. The final product is dusted with confectioner’s sugar and then cut into wedges. What you get in the end is rich and thick; a cake that leans toward candy territory. It’s sweet, spicy, nutty, and sometimes a little bitter.

Throughout Siena, shops lure you to their windows with stacks of these cakes, made using their special recipe, showing off the bounty of ingredients they’ve packed into a single slice. I think this is where my strange attraction to panforte comes into play. I get to Siena, I’m surrounded by remarkable medieval architecture, I’m lulled into a happy historical stupor, and, then, unique, historic desserts start winking at me through all of these windows. How can I not get a slice?

Panforte, you see, has a long historical connection to Siena. I have a great book about Italian food and its history called Culinaria Italy. It says that the first mention of panforte shows up in a document from 1205, so it has been around in one form or another for a long time.

The book recounts a legend about the creation of panforte. As the story goes, a young man named Nicoló de Salimbeni got sick of his indulgent ways and gave up all of his worldly possessions to a nun named Sister Berta. These possessions included a bag of spices, which were very dear in those days, and a recipe for a sweetmeat of apples, flour, and dried fruits called melatello. Sister Berta made the recipe but decided it was too extravagant for nuns to eat, so she passed it on to a bishop. The recipe continued to pass from person to person until it reached the hands of a famous cook named Ubaldino, who was so well-known that Dante wrote about him in the Divine Comedy. Ubaldino changed the recipe a bit and, essentially, created the first panforte. Panforte then became one of Siena’s exports and was thought to be an aphrodisiac because of the amount of exotic spices used in the recipes. It appeared in Venice around 1370. (Culinaria Italy, ed. Claudia Piras (h.f.ullmann, 2008), 245.)

So if you’re ever in Siena, grab a slice and wander the medieval streets while pondering history and/or trying to discern any aphrodisiac effects.

If you can’t make it to Siena, you can always try making panforte at home. I haven’t made one yet and there are lots of recipes strewn around the web, but these are the ones I’ve been looking at so far: Davina Cucina and Bon Appetit. When I do make one, I’ll be sure to do a post on it.

If you make or have made one in the past, feel free to leave a comment about your experience!

Oh, and although I really, really hate fruitcake, I'm always willing to give them a taste. If you have any tried, true, beloved, delicious, and neon fruit-free recipes, feel free to let me know!

Velvet Baby Cakes

Excuse the slow updates, I just got back from a vacation and an unexpected trip to the US for a job interview. I didn't get the job and have spent some time in "woe-is-me" land. Hopefully, I'll be back to my regularly scheduled self soon. OK! Enough of that. Bring on the cake!

Red Velvet Cake (RVC) was always one of those cakes that I heard people rave about but had never tried. I tend to be a very curious and adventurous baker and love trying new thing, so I've always kept my eyes peeled for a RVC recipe that got rave reviews/high praise. A few months ago I found a Red Velvet recipe on called "Mom Mom's Red Velvet Cake" that seemed perfect. I filed it in my memory as a "must try."

What I really loved about the recipe was that it seemed so authentic. There's a fun vinegar/baking soda chemistry experiment in the main cake recipe and the buttercream frosting was unlike any other I had seen before. I tend to hate frosting in general, especially buttercream, and only really tolerate cream cheese frosting. Needless to say, most people think I'm nuts and don't want dry cake, so I'm always on the lookout for new frosting recipes. According to the chowhound thread, these kinds of buttercreams are meant to hold up to Southern heat and humidity and date back to the 40s. So with all of this new stuff to play with, I couldn't wait to give it a try.

Last month my mom's friend decided to come up to Canada for a visit with her husband. My mom had told me that she was a big fan of RVCs so I thought it would be a perfect time to give it a try. Instead of making the whole recipe, however, I decided to do a small test-drive and made what I'm going to call baby cakes. Not cupcakes. Tiny, personal cakes.

I made the batter as per the instructions, being especially careful not to overmix because apparently that makes this cake tough.  I did leave out the 1 oz. of red food coloring, though. Hence the name Velvet Baby Cakes. I just couldn't stomach the idea of putting that much chemical food coloring into something just to make it look pretty. I know people also use beet juice but didn't have any on hand and couldn't convince myself of going through the trouble. Maybe RVC devotees will scoff, but I think the cake is just as pretty without the dye.

After mixing the batter, I poured it into one standard jelly-roll pan/cookie sheet.  Once in the oven, I made sure to watch it like a hawk for signs of doneness. After poking it a few times, it was finally finished.

To make individual sized cakes I used a small stainless steel cup that had a nicely-sized mouth to cut around with a knife. I wish I had an array of cookie or dough cutters to choose from, but sometimes you just have to make due with what you've got on hand.

As you can see, I didn't quite get the batter perfectly distributed so some of the cakes were a bit lopsided or thinner. I think an off-set spatula would fix this easily. Ahem. I'm noticing that I need more baking supplies, tools, and gadgets all around!

Now that I had some naked velvet cakes, I needed some frosting. The recipe was great fun to try. First, you make a thick cornstarch and milk flour on the stove. I'm assuming this is what gives the frosting its "sturdiness" in heat and humidity. It also lends a really lovely, mild milky/creamy flavor that I'm not sure I've ever encountered. The rest of it is a pretty basic recipe and turns into a nice, tasty, fluffy, yet substantial frosting. I love it! I think it would be fantastic on many cakes and could even serve as a great canvas for added flavors.

Once I'd made the frosting, I started frosting the cakes and found there wasn't going to be enough to cover them all. So some cakes ended up fully dressed and others had just a top and a middle layer. My family actually ended up liking the half-dressed cakes since they could be held or eaten off of a plate. After that experience, though,I ended up making one big cake for the family's guests and doubled the recipe. I was happy I did because it definitely needed the extra to get the nice thick layer that most people like.

All in all, I'd say that I really like the recipe. The baby cakes were slightly tougher than the large cake but I think that could be remedied by using individual mini-cake pans. If you don't want to invest in those, I think this works pretty well. The larger cake also came out much cleaner because there were a lot fewer crumbs and I could do a dirty icing with the extra frosting.

If you're looking for an old-fashioned cake recipe and love Red Velvet then I'd definitely recommend giving it a try. I'd love to hear from Red Velvet aficionados (and I know you exist!) for recommendations, helpful hints, and/or their opinions of this recipe.